Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Merle Haggard

Tim Tooher | 14th April 2016

Merle Haggard died last week. Tim Tooher pays tribute:

So it’s goodbye Merle Haggard, a man whose very name seemed to tell his story. Merle as country as country can be, and Haggard hinting at the visible marks of some existential burden. His life was country too, and it also explained the burden. He grew up in a converted boxcar, the son of Okie parents who’d had to move to California when their barn burned down during the Great Depression. His dad died before he was ten. He ran away to Texas when he was fourteen. He rode freight trains. He was arrested for petty larceny, beating another boy up, attempting robberies and passing bad cheques. He was in juvenile detention and then the local prison, from which he tried to escape. From there, he was sent to San Quentin, where he heard Johnny Cash play.

Like a whisky ages in the cask, Merle’s upbringing formed him both as a man and a writer. He knew what it was to be poor and forgotten and to work hard for little reward. The man’s life suffused his work, and part of what made him great was that, even when personal, his songs felt universal. He didn’t sing for himself, but for all like him. His songs are missives from the world of the working man that crawl out from the underbelly of the American Dream. He sang for the dispossessed and forgotten, his words pure working-class poetry.

As great as his songs were, it is the combination of them with a magnificently human voice that makes him a candidate for the Mount Rushmore of country music. His voice was a distillation of Lefty Frizzell and Jimmy Rodgers. It was warm and strong. Masculine yet vulnerable. He’d schooled himself in the records of Jimmy, Lefty, Hank and less heralded stars like Floyd Tillman and Tommy Duncan. He’d learnt how to sing a song, how to put it across. He was a craftsman both as a singer and a writer. A craftsman who brought his love and learning to bear upon his work.

Listen to him sing the naked, weary “Footlights” from 1979’s Serving 190 Proof. It’s a song about the emptiness of his life as an ageing star on the road, about having to put on a smile and go out on the stage night after night. In lesser hands, it might’ve been maudlin or self-pitying, but Merle sings it with such grace, tenderness and aching vulnerability that it almost hurts to listen to it. He strips himself so bare that listening feels close to intrusion.

It was and always will be a joy to listen to him. His voice was made for telling stories in song, just like other great country singers. Unlike most though, the songs Merle sang were generally his own, and as a writer, he was peerless. There are others that might be his equal, but I can’t think of any that were better, especially that were so good for so long. He never stopped writing great songs.

Anyone who loves Merle’s music will have their own favourites. For me, today at least, the ones that get me most, besides “Footlights”, are “If We Make It Through December”, “Kern River”, “I Always Get Lucky With You”, “Goodbye Lefty” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”. Ask me tomorrow and the list won’t be the same, but today these are the ones I want to hear.

“If We Make It Through December” is a song about poverty, about not knowing where the next meal is coming from. When Merle wrote it, he didn’t have to worry about those things anymore, but it was a life he’d known and he never forgot. He’s often painted as a right-wing conservative, largely because of songs that he later said were written when he was young and ignorant, but here, he’s anything but. The music, the words and the way he sings drip with empathy. It’s a song of hope in the face of a world that has let you down and it must have given hope to so many of his fans for whom its words were a sad reality. It’s songs like this that made Merle come to be known as the poet of the common man.

“Kern River” is a song of loss, explicitly for the lover carried away by the dangerous Kern River that runs close to his Bakersfield home, but also a more general sense of loss for times gone and hopes dimmed. Merle again sings with such deftness of touch and emotional nakedness that you don’t even need to listen to the words to feel the message of the song. The music is almost not there, gone like the lover and the life that once was. Merle was born into the loss of his family’s Dust Bowl-displacement from their Oklahoma home and that sense of absence haunts this song and was a constant theme in Merle’s music. It’s easy to imagine that he felt there was some kind of hole in his life as he was growing up. It’s also easy, and good, to imagine that he discovered he could fill that hole with music.

“Kern River” is ineffably sad and like all country singers Merle was no stranger to sad songs. Even his love songs could be tinged with sadness. “I Always Get Lucky With You” is the tale of a man who has little luck in his life beyond with the subject of the song. It’s a delicate waltz, which features a near New Orleans trumpet break which betrays something of the influence of jazz on the development of country music. Cushioned by the subtlest of string arrangements, Merle lists the things that have gone against him, but the sad, fragile melody lifts for the chorus in which Merle’s luck turns. It’s a gorgeous song and a beautiful performance, which is a million miles away from “The Fightin’ Side Of Me”. A couple of years after Merle released it on 1981’s classic Big City, it became a hit for George Jones, whose version is immense, but doesn’t have the gentle grace of Merle’s, though in both, you can hear the influence of the inimitable Lefty Frizzell.

Lefty was Merle’s musical touchstone and almost certainly his most important vocal influence. You just need to listen to Merle’s versions of Lefty songs like the extraordinary “I Never Go Round Mirrors” and “That’s The Way Love Goes” to know how closely and perhaps reverently Merle could cleave to Lefty’s distinctive emotional style. Lefty studied Jimmie Rodgers and Merle studied Lefty. Passing it on is so much part of country music, and part of that is the tribute song, even the tribute album, of which one of the greatest examples is Merle’s A Tribute To The Best Damned Fiddle Players in The World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills). So when Lefty died, what was Merle going to do but write a song? “Goodbye Lefty” is a faithful and loving recreation of Lefty’s classic fifties sound and while the lyric is little more than a list of Lefty songs, I love this song because when he sings, “But the old, old man is gone, There’ll be no more Lefty songs, How much he meant to me, Nobody knows”, we know that Merle felt just like those who love his music do now when one of his own heroes died.

Merle’s love for the music he made and the music that inspired him is part of what defines him. You could always tell that music was so much a part of him. It wasn’t his job. It was who he was. Writing about Merle last week, Peter Guralnick compared him to Duke Ellington in that both men had a group of musicians that they loved to work with and for whom doing so was enough, was what it was all about. So for me the best song to remember Merle by today is “My Own Kind Of Hat”. It might seem, at first listen, to be lyrically slight, but it swings with sheer joy. It’s a song that never fails to make me smile. You can hear western swing, country, and even a little bit of jazz in its short three minutes. Bob Wills is there in it all, one of Merle’s constant inspirations, and that lyric, initially something like a nursery rhyme, is about being proud of who you are, being your own person.

And that was Merle Haggard, always his own man, and what a man he was. Fierce, compassionate, contrary, defiant, kind. He helped to shape country music, just as it had shaped him. For me, his music also says something about what it is to be a man and shows us that sometimes being vulnerable is as important as being strong. He was as human a musician as I know and there can be no greater praise than that. The world is going to miss him.

Merle Haggard, April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016.